Swedish politician and startup founder Mathias Sundin
fell in love with North Carolina on his first trip around the state in 2015.
But it wasn’t until his second trip last week that he became convinced of the state’s prowess as a technology hub and began to channel his energy toward connecting it with his own startup community in Stockholm, a place known for sprouting powerhouse tech companies like Spotify and Skype.
Sundin is known to be progressive—he collected only Bitcoin during his 2014 campaign and worked with his party to write the first proposal to Parliament involving bitcoin and blockchain technology.
He’s supported loosening tax policy on employee stock options, keeping corporate taxes low, and continuing the startup momentum that has earned Stockholm the title “Unicorn Factory” by Financial Times.
Part of his effort has been to keep a pulse on the global startup community, but specifically the U.S., a market many Swedish startups hope to enter. So he’s paid visits to expensive and competitive San Francisco, Boston, New York City and Austin, hoping to understand why so many Swedish startups open their U.S. headquarters there. He’s wondered all along if there’s a better place for Swedish startups to consider.
And selfishly, he hoped to find the best U.S. headquarters for his own startup, online used car sales platform PolyPoly
, when it comes time to expand.
After his initial introduction last year, Raleigh and Durham kept getting Sundin's attention when he researched various U.S. cities. The region has top-ranked universities and a strong talent pipeline, a good business climate and reasonable cost of living. And so when he began planning his 2016 U.S. trip in timing with the New Hampshire primary (he admits to being a nut for American politics), he happened to read a newsletter from the Chamber of Digital Commerce discussing new North Carolina legislation that makes it easier for bitcoin and blockchain technology businesses to operate in the state.
That was all it took to cement plans to stop in North Carolina on his 2016 U.S. tour.
Sundin emailed Chamber head Perianne Boring
(who visited the Triangle late last year
to meet with bitcoin and political leaders) and asked if she knew someone who could organize the visit. She put him in touch with Cryptolina Bitcoin Expo founders Dan Spuller
and Faruk Oktecin
, who organized three days of activities that included meeting with Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest
, visiting with Research Triangle Park Foundation president Bob Geolas
and COO Mason Ailstock
, sitting in on a Duke University cryptofinance class taught by Dr. Campbell Harvey
, touring HQ Raleigh and meeting with the city of Raleigh’s Derrick Minor
He also met with lobbyists and the banking commission and members of the local bitcoin and startup communities including SightSpan
founder John Walsh
After nearly two days of meetings, I spent time with Sundin at the cafeteria in the Legislative Building. He told me his initial plan is to bring a Swedish delegation to Raleigh in the next year to meet with politicians and entrepreneurs here. He hopes to also host a group from the Triangle in Stockholm. Relationship building between the two cities will be key, he says.
But he believes the benefits for both cities will be easy to see. For Swedish startups, it's the talent, startup activity and cost of living and doing business, he says. Here's the message he'll be spreading back home: “If you have an app and close connections with Apple and Google, you should have an office in Silicon Valley,’ Sundin says. “But if you’re building a company for the U.S. market, why go to the place that is most expensive?”
For Triangle startups, there's a track record of success. Sundin is quick to rattle off the names of successful startups founded in his town—Skype, Spotify, Minecraft-maker Mojang, Candy Crush Saga-maker King and Truecaller, likely to be Stockholm’s next unicorn startup.
A study by a Skype co-founder's venture capital firm Atomico determined Stockholm has the second highest number of unicorns per capita in the world behind Silicon Valley. In a story last March, Financial Times nicknamed the city “The Unicorn Factory”.
It’s also been a popular place for U.S. companies to test the European market. HBO famously launched streaming video in Sweden before bringing it to the U.S.
Sundin argues Stockholm has the quality of engineers and educated business people that can be found in Paris and London (and at more affordable rates), and easy access to those cities. It has a strong financial sector too, making it attractive to North Carolina businesses in that industry. 18 percent of all investment
in European FinTech companies over the last five years was in Stockholm, a city that has just 1 percent of the population in Europe. Gaming is another stronghold and an attractive asset for our region's gaming community.
Sundin is confident his plan will work. When he asks Swedish companies why they go to San Francisco or New York, their answer is shallow: "That's where everyone else goes." When he asks what they know about North Carolina, they admit they've heard of it, but know nothing about it.
He plans to change that. North Carolina, he's convinced, "is the best place" for his country's best companies to grow in the U.S.
Follow Sundin @MathiasSundin for details of his journey and the Stockholm startup community.